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Center offers state’s first civic education research effort

February 27, 2008

Arizona State University’s College of Teacher Education and Leadership has its first center, the state’s first civic education research effort.

Established to foster collaborative, use-inspired research in civic education at local, national and international levels, the Center for Civic Education and Leadership will be directed by Nancy Haas, an associate professor of secondary education at the college.

“The center will be a powerful vehicle to promote the importance of civics in education,” says Haas, who has developed a preservice teacher training program in civic education that serves as a model for emerging democracies, including Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Civics has taken a back seat in education, and it’s important for advocacy groups to increase civic education and participation.

“The center, whose mission is focused on research related to civic education, teacher professional development, and civic participation, will join forces with other like-minded organizations to promote this work throughout Arizona. There is a critical need for collaborative inquiry and action research to increase the quantity and quality of civic education and participation in civil society.”

Haas, who has been working to launch the center for more than a year, will be joined by Assistant Director Elizabeth Hinde, an assistant professor in the college’s elementary education department, who specializes in social studies education. Both Haas and Hinde are members of the Sandra Day O'Connor Our Courts Curriculum Content Team, joined by Charles Calleros of ASU’s College of Law and Abigail Taylor of the Georgetown University Law Center. The team is creating an online, interactive national civics curriculum for middle schools.

“The aspect that will separate this center from others around the country is the research we will conduct,” says Hinde. “We have been meeting with teachers and other educators in focus groups and exploring how civic education is perceived to be and how it is being taught in middle and high schools. Right now, the way civics is being presented in school often doesn’t encourage participation; the content is either not deep enough or it is not taught with a great deal of context.”

The deficiencies in the presentation of civic education were highlighted in a survey conducted in 2002 by The Polling Company. The poll found that 64 percent of Americans could not name any of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices. In fact, the poll found that twice as many Americans could identify the name and number of the Rice Krispies characters than the members of the country’s highest court. Another 2002 poll, this one by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), reported that only a quarter of 15- to 25-year-olds reported regular attentiveness to politics and political affairs.

“The decreasing confidence in the institutions of representative government, the increasing clamor for direct democracy – using the initiative and the referendum as examples – and the expansion of advocacy democracy drives the need to increase the effectiveness of civic education and to provide professional development for K-16 educators,” says Haas, who joined the ASU faculty when the teacher education college launched in 1986 and last year won the Sandra Neese Lifetime Achievement Award for her commitment to the education of homeless children.

“One of the main goals for the center will be to collaborate with preK-12 schools to conduct research and program development to positively impact civic education,” she says.

The center will pursue five major categories of activities that will align with its goals.

  • The creation of a civic education program, Our Courts, initiated and guided by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The collaboration with ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and Georgetown University’s Law Center will address the evident crisis in civic education and help educators seeking to increase student achievement in civic education;
  • The development of undergraduate and graduate courses in civic education and leadership. In a cooperative effort with civic education organizations such as the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services and Education, the center will also offer professional development opportunities for practicing teachers, school resource officers, and others involved in civic education;
  • The enhancement of the social embeddedness of the college and the center. The center will conduct forums and presentations to increase awareness of civic responsibility for the local academic and civic communities. Seminars and conferences concerning civic education and designed to attract a national audience are also planned;
  • The evaluation of the effectiveness of civic education curricula and programs on local, national and international levels. On a national plane, Our Courts will be evaluated by the center through pilot tests that will be evaluated and revised as necessary;
  • The increase of civic participation through a partnership with the Center for Civic Participation at Mesa Community College that will conduct awareness campaigns and workshops for the public.

“An unintended consequence of the “No Child Left behind” program is a decrease in civics education in favor of content that will increase test scores,” says Haas. “This is unfortunate and I believe the founders of our country would likely frown on this practice. Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.’

“These words are prophetic and ring true. The center will dedicate itself to bringing civic education to those who will lead us in the future.”